A year into the pandemic, many Canadians are bored. That might be an opportunity

Philosopher Andreas Elpidorou says the widespread experience of boredom during the pandemic is far from dull. He believes taking a closer look at our boredom can help us craft a better life and a more just society.
Andreas Elpidorou is worried where COVID-related boredom might take us and wants people to think deeply about the state they're experiencing. (Shutterstock/fizkes)

As provinces across Canada, enter, leave, and re-enter lockdowns, people are being forced to reckon with a potentially dangerous phenomenon. 

Being asked to stay inside most of the day, it turns out, can be boring. 

Many people are struggling to fill the void that might have been occupied by seeing friends, going to restaurants or just spending extended time outside.

According to one study, 93 per cent of Canadians now spend an average 22 hours per week watching TV. Neilsen reported in September 2020, the amount of time North Americans spent watching Netflix and streaming services like it had gone up 74 per cent, nearly double the same time last year.

One philosopher is worried where all this boredom might take us. 

Andreas Elpidorou, a professor at the University of Louisville, wants people to think deeply about the boredom they're experiencing.

Andreas Elpidorou (Submitted by Andreas Elpidorou)

Boredom can benefit us, he said. It can point to something in your life that needs to change. But when the circumstance that is making you bored is impossible to change, it might be even more important how we choose to respond to that boredom. 

Tapestry host Mary Hynes talked to Elpidorou about boredom, and how people have responded to it in the pandemic. 

In your book Propelled, you make the argument that boredom can very well be a force for good in the world and the human being. How do you see that?

One of the elements of boredom that I think is really crucial to bear in mind is that boredom is not like apathy. Boredom has an active component to it and that is manifested as a desire to do something that we're not currently doing. So one of the real positives of boredom is that it pushes us to do something else. I am arguing that a good life is a life in motion, it's the life of a doer in some ways. And so what boredom does for us, it protects us from getting stuck in situations that are going to end up being unfulfilling or meaningless to us. It prompts us to get out of that situation. And hopefully, if we have the right resources and we are in the right state of mind, we might be able to find something better to do, something more productive for us and something more fulfilling.

We don't want boredom, but perhaps when it arises, we want to use it in the right way.

We're talking about this during an extraordinary moment. I'm curious about what insights the pandemic might have brought you about the experience of boredom?

I think there's been a conversation about what we can do when boredom arises. It's not that it ever went away but now it's far more pressing and we have to deal with it. So some of my thoughts right now are just trying to figure out: what is up to me and what is not up to me? That is to say, what I can control and what I cannot.

And why is that an important distinction?

There's this conversation going on that boredom might have some helpful function to serve. We don't want boredom, but perhaps when it arises, we want to use it in the right way. But not all of us are going to be able to use it in the right way, or at least in a productive way or in [such a way] we're going to be able to alleviate it. 

So if you think of someone who works many hours per day and then they come home and they're exhausted, that person will have fewer opportunities to deal with boredom. When boredom arises, they might have to do some activities that are mindless. And now put COVID into the picture and trying to do your work while staying in the same environment. 

We know that when there are a lot of constraints, it's easier for us to experience boredom. So we have to start thinking about ways I can kind of untangle myself from all those requirements, free up some space. And just being a little bit more receptive, perhaps to the idea that boredom is telling us something, and we need to figure out what that is.

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It's interesting, though, because this is also a time of frenetic, desperate activity for so many people. I'm thinking of hospital workers and frontline workers. Is it a privileged thing to be having a conversation about boredom at a time of such desperate business? 

Yeah. It's a question that really gets us to think why we experience boredom and under what conditions.

In some cases, it is a luxury. But I want to qualify that it is a luxury if you're at home, and you're like, 'well, I finished work, what do I do now.' That is a type of luxury. But I think for a lot of people, boredom is part of their life. That is to say, maybe their work is not fulfilling for them, because they do need to work, they need the money. So they spend all these hours doing a task that's not giving them meaning or a sense of meaningfulness. Experiencing boredom for them is certainly not a luxury. 

And in fact, I think it's a great danger and an issue that society needs to address, just adding to [the load of] frontline workers, people working all the time trying to help us out with COVID. I think there are two other emotional states that are related there. I think frustration is big. And also burnout from working all the time and using your resources without being able to see in the future that this is gonna end soon. That's really toxic.

How have you dealt with boredom during COVID?

I'm still trying to figure it out to be honest. I am more careful now to monitor my own experiences. What I really pay attention to is if I was doing an activity pre-COVID and that gave me a genuine sense of happiness or meaning, I want to compare it to what it feels like to do right now. I am trying to make sure that some of the activities I was doing before still carry that sense of meaning and joy that they once carried. You know, I'm really worried that the whole landscape has shifted or might shift in a way that I've lost some of the interests, some of the sources of joy, and that that really worries me.

I remember reading in 2016 about a theory that both the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit could be explained in part by a kind of disengaged, bored, public saying, "Hmm, what happens if I push this button? Let's see what happens if I do this." Does that idea hold any water for you?

It's a very complicated but so intriguing question given how things have turned out. So what we know is that boredom is a state that promotes a search for meaning. So if people are experiencing a sense of boredom, they're going to try out things that are novel or exciting, but also things that are going to give them meaning. And we also know that people who are attracted to extreme political ideologies see those ideologies as a source of meaning. So it might be the combination of both things: there is this apathy or boredom of voters, at the same time when there's a rise of more extreme movements. So there is certainly something there. 

Do you think there is a risk of the particular shades of boredom a lot of people are feeling during the pandemic, further promoting harmful behavior?

There's some recent evidence suggesting that bored individuals — or ones that typically experience boredom — are more likely to not listen to social distancing rules, for example. And that's because when you experience a sense of boredom, you want to alleviate that and one way is to break the rules or to do something that's going to give you back a positive experience. 

So the big question is if this boredom that we're experiencing right now is that kind of situational boredom that's going to cease when we're back to normal? Or is it something that would have changed who we are in some more profound way? I don't know the answer to that question. 

At the end of the day, perhaps boredom should be considered a kind of a social issue or a social justice issue of some sort. If certain people, given their circumstances, are more susceptible to experiencing boredom, especially now, then as society we need to be talking about this.

With so many people feeling trapped by the pandemic right now, to one degree or another, what would you say is a good way to channel some of that boredom?

The social context is going to make a big difference. If you have a support network of individuals that you can call up, you can chat with them, you can still have meaningful social interactions. That's going to be a must. And this is personally how I'm dealing with it. 

If people have the time and if they have the resources, it's just finding projects that are meaningful to them. I know it's not that easy to do, but it might be an opportunity for us to take some time and reflect on what we've lost during the pandemic and if there are ways to reclaim some of what has gone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This segment was written and produced by Arman Aghbali. 


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